‘I couldn’t fix myself’: Bishop Conley opens up about mental health recovery

By Mary Farrow/Catholic News Agency

In December 2019, Bishop James Conley of the Diocese of Lincoln announced he was going on a medical leave of absence.

Citing diagnoses of depression and anxiety, as well as chronic insomnia and debilitating tinnitus (a constant ringing of the ears), the bishop said in a public statement that he would be receiving psychological as well as medical treatment.

It had taken him months to get to a point where he realized he needed help.

“It really goes back to the summer of 2018, so, long before I finally got to the point where I asked for some time off,” Conley told CNA.

“There were the difficulties in the Church with regard to the misconduct of priests…(including) here in my diocese,” he said. That summer was also when the McCarrick scandal broke, and when the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report came out.

Besides abuse scandals, Conley also had to close some diocesan schools that had been “running in the red for a number of years. And that’s always a difficult decision to make. It was the right decision, but it was a hard decision.”

There was also a priest of the diocese, younger than Conley, who died around that time.  “There were a number of other things that kind of mounted,” Conley said. “I think that started it.”

As the problems mounted, Conley felt personally responsible for them all, as a bishop and as someone who cared about the people in his diocese.

“I (felt I) was responsible for all of this and that I had to try to fix it myself instead of surrendering to God,” he said.

But the physical and mental symptoms started compounding. He couldn’t sleep. He started losing interest in things he had once enjoyed. A constant ringing began in his ears. He felt overwhelmed.

“I used to tell people that great prayer that Saint John XXIII supposedly would say at night during the Second Vatican Council: ‘Lord, it’s your Church. I’m going to bed.’ And I wasn’t able to take my own advice,” he said. “I just was getting ground down.”

Conley said that while he never was tempted to use unhealthy coping mechanisms, like drugs or alcohol, he was worried what would happen if he continued to feel so anxious and overwhelmed.

In the spring of 2019, Conley went to Mayo Clinic and was diagnosed with anxiety and depression. He said he tried to rest, worry less, and go to counseling while maintaining his duties as a bishop, but it wasn’t working.

“I was trying to fix myself and as time went on, I realized that I couldn’t fix myself while I was still on the job, so to speak.”

Conley sought the counsel of some of his friends, including Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City; Bishop James Wall of Gallup, New Mexico; Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix; and Archbishop George Lucas of Omaha.

With the help of these friends, Conley presented his case before the U.S. Nuncio, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, during a private meeting at the November 2019 assembly of the U.S. bishops’ conference.

“And the nuncio said, ‘Well, I think you need some time off to get some professional help.’”

Until then, Conley had not even considered that a leave of absence was possible for a bishop.

“I was called by God to be a successor of the Apostles, we don’t have any record of the Apostles taking time off,” Conley said. “So I just didn’t think that a bishop could do that. And that somehow, that would be a sign of weakness or failure, or not being able to fulfill (my) duties. When in reality, we are body and soul. Grace builds upon nature. And so we need to take care of our physical and mental wellbeing in order to be good at whatever we’re doing.”

Conley said Pierre was very supportive, and told him to obtain a doctor’s note that could be sent along with the request to Pope Francis, since bishops are under obedience to the Holy Father.

By December 2019, Conley’s leave had been approved. On December 13, he announced the leave to his diocese. In the announcement, Conley said he had been diagnosed with depression and anxiety, and that he was taking a mental health leave.

“I wanted to be honest, and I wanted to be truthful about why I was leaving. If I’m going to leave, that’s a big deal. And I didn’t want to keep that a secret and leave it to people to speculate what (the reason for leaving) was,” he said.

Conley said he was overwhelmed by the positive and supportive response.

“I received a lot of letters and cards and notes, not only from people who I knew and who were writing to support me, but from people I didn’t even know, who themselves had struggled with some mental health issue, or (a relative) or some friend of theirs had,” he said.

“And they were so grateful to me for being so open about it and transparent. They thanked me for talking about it, because of the stigma that’s surrounding mental illness,” he said. “And that was helpful for me, comforting for me to know that I wasn’t the only one, and that I wasn’t alone in this.”

Shortly after the announcement, Conley left to stay in Phoenix, where he was able to receive treatment from a psychologist, a psychiatrist, and medical doctors, as well as spiritual direction.

Three months later, the rest of the world went on a sort of leave of absence as well, as the coronavirus pandemic caused national and global shutdowns. It made Conley’s recovery more difficult, he said.

“That didn’t help…the isolation, when I was down in Phoenix,” he said. He had a few good friends, particularly a young family, who were very helpful, he added. The couple were both former students of his at the University of Dallas, and they now have five kids, and would frequently invite Conley to their house.

“But it was just a strain, then, to see how the whole pandemic played out,” Conley said.

Conley said it was important that he had Catholic counselors and doctors to work with throughout his treatment, so that they were all on the same page about how his faith was a part of his recovery.

During recovery, Conley said he learned to re-frame his thinking, and to more fully trust God, as well as his staff and collaborators, with the responsibilities of a bishop. He re-learned the importance of sleep, healthy eating, exercise, and recreation as part of a well-balanced life.

“Because we’re body and soul that we need balance and we need a certain order in our life to help us stay healthy,” he said.

There can sometimes be a stigma against mental illness and treatment among some Christian circles, where the illness is seen as a sign of spiritual weakness that can be cured with more prayer.

But Conley said seeking help – including psychological, spiritual, and mental recovery – is an act of surrender to the will of God.

“One Scripture passage that jumps out is John 15, ‘Apart from the Lord, you can do nothing.’ And that’s what I think can lead to mental illnesses, that you think it’s all up to you, that you have to solve all the problems in your life or in the world,” Conley said.

He said he has been so open with his experience because he wants to encourage others “to not hesitate to get help, when you need it. Don’t be embarrassed, or don’t feel like you’re weak or something, if you try to get help,” he said.

On Thursday, the Diocese of Lincoln announced that Conley would be returning from his leave of absence and resuming his duties on November 13, after 11 months of leave and recovery.

Conley said he is looking forward to being back with the people of the diocese, to continue helping foster vocations, and to promote Catholic education. He said he is excited about a new pro-life crisis pregnancy center being built across the street from the Planned Parenthood in Lincoln. He added that he’s also going to start thinking about evangelization post-COVID, because he fears that the Church may have lost some people from the pews during the lockdowns and extended dispensations.

But he’s going to ease back in, and he’s going to try to keep the things he learned in recovery at the forefront of his mind.

“I’m not going to hit the ground running, I’m hitting the ground walking,” he said.

He said he’s going to pace himself, and make sure he is exercising and getting good sleep and taking time to do things he enjoys. 

“You don’t live to work, you need to work to live. And some people, especially in America today, we have this mentality of pragmatism or utilitarianism, where you’re working 18 hours a day…that’s no way to live life.”

He added that he would encourage anyone struggling, particularly due to the isolation of the ongoing pandemic, to reach out and get help.

“Don’t hesitate to seek help. And especially, if you’re feeling anxious or overwhelmed. Being disconnected really is a source of pain. We’re meant to be in community and so I would say that if people are feeling disconnected in any way that they reach out and get help.”

“You’re not alone,” he added. “There are people out there that can help.”

Featured image: Bishop James D. Conley speaks at the 2017 Regional Catholic Classical Schools Conference at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Parish on July 5, 2017, in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Anya Semenoff/Denver Catholic)

COMING UP: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.

Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.